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Sowing the seed: Waikato Uni gets into agri-innovation funding

Waikato University has launched an Agri-tech seed fund, as a way to link innovative businesses in the rural sector with funding, research and expertise. Idealog asks Duncan Mackintosh, CEO of the university’s commercial arm WaikatoLink why the need for a new fund, and what innovators need to do to get hold of some of the lovely money.

Why is a noble institution like a university getting into the dirty business of funding?

The Government’s goal is to double the value of our exports to $64 billion by 2025, so New Zealand can remain competitive in the global market. With 70% of our exports good by value being primary products, and with the Waikato region hosting one of the largest concentrations of agri-business, agri-technology and agri-service companies in the country. The University of Waikato has a lot of capability in the agri space, with researchers working on agri-tech or agribusiness projects across various faculties. We decided we should be making a contribution to achieving these goals.

Surely cash-strapped universities don’t have money to hand out?

We aren’t taking on Warren Buffett – we don’t have big dollops of money. Projects will range in size from $5,000 to $30,000. Basically, it isn’t just about the funding. We want to build engagement between the university and industry. The money will help facilitate the engagement and help us understand more about the problems of industry and helping solve them.

What do you mean?

We are expecting it to be hands-on, practical stuff. It might be that the funds would pay for a researcher to work with a company. Or employ a master’s student to do some early proof-of-concept development work. A good example of how this has worked in the past is the automated hole-drilling dibbler that Waikato University research engineers built for Arborgen, New Zealand’s largest pine tree nursery. The researchers worked with Arborgen to understand the problem and then developed a tool to help. The result was that productivity improved by approximately 30% by reducing the number of reject seedlings.

We’ve also been part of the creation of animal health and diagnostics company Aldera, a joint venture between WaikatoLink and a local entrepreneur with extensive expertise in animal health solutions. And we are involved, along with Wallace Corporation, in Aduro Biopolymers, an R&D and manufacturing company formed from a University of Waikato spinout company, Novatein.

The type of projects that could be eligible might range from sensing and automation applications for the dairy and forestry industries through to alternative energy solutions and new biomaterials.

If you are doing it already, why create a new fund?

Instead of it being on an ad hoc basis, we want to build a profile for the university staff and students as a source of smart ideas.

How much is in the fund?

There is no cap on it at this point.  Each project will be looked at on its merits. It could be that we get involved in a lot of small, $5,000 projects, or a few larger ones.

How will you get your money back?

We aren’t looking at a return on investment in the way a traditional financial fund would. We might not get our money back. Our measure of success will be long-term engagement with industry. For example, a company we have worked with might start employing students, or fund a masters or PhD project, or use us for some consultancy work. There might be opportunity for future licensing, or even start-ups.

Have you started?

We have four or five projects that are looking interesting. The next stage is to appoint a dedicated Agritech Innovation Manager and we are about to advertise the job. We will also set up an Agritech Entrepreneurial Fellowship to build capability based on industry innovation.

Chief editor at Idealog, Nikki's a veteran in the journalism industry. A former lecturer at AUT University, she was the chief reporter at NZ weekly business publication The Independent and was deputy editor of Canadian publication Unlimited magazine.

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